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Learning to think like an engineer

Neerja Aggarwal reflects on her love for theater, ultimate Frisbee, and electrical engineering.
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Neerja Aggarwal
Neerja Aggarwal
Photo: Audrey Resutek

Since she was a little girl launching air-pressure rockets in her back yard in Houston, Texas, Neerja Aggarwal knew that she loved math and science. “I was always up to something,” the electrical engineering major recalls.

Aggarwal, now a senior at MIT, is still constantly up to something. She is the founder and leader of Voltage, an undergraduate electrical engineering club, part of the first group of students to graduate with a major in theater arts, and a member of sMITe, MIT’s Women’s Ultimate Frisbee team. This summer, she will start working on her MEng at MIT.

Engineering mindset

Aggarwal’s path to electrical engineering included a few stops along the way, as she discovered new disciplines and ways of approaching problems.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned at MIT is that you really don’t know what you don’t know,” she says. “I had no idea what else was out there.”

In high school, Aggarwal enrolled in a magnet program focused on medicine because she thought she wanted to be a doctor. Through the program she did rotations at Houston’s Anderson Cancer Center, and realized that she didn’t want to be a doctor — she wanted to build devices that doctors could use.

Going into the fall of her sophomore year, Aggarwal was ready to declare her major in materials science and engineering. She had done research in a chemistry lab at Rice University during high school, and loved the solid state chemistry class she took during her freshman year.

However, she kept thinking about an introductory electrical engineering and computer science class she had taken as a freshman. “I got to program a robot to navigate though a maze, and it was the first time that I thought about systems thinking, and how you can control a system,” she remembers. “And that’s what engineering is: It’s a way of thinking, it’s a mindset.”

Founding Voltage

The experience prompted her to declare electrical engineering as her major. Aggarwal is one of a growing number of students opting to study in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) — enrollment in the department has roughly doubled since 2010-2011 from 637 students to 1,204 students in the current academic year.

Aggarwal was happy with her decision to change majors, but missed some of the benefits of a small academic department she had experienced in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. 

“I really liked the small major feeling of materials science, and I wanted to bring that to electrical engineering,” she says. Aggarwal decided to start Voltage, a club for undergraduate electrical engineers.

Voltage aims to bring students, alumni, and faculty together for interactions around research and coursework. A subcommittee of the MIT IEEE/ACM Club, Voltage started with study breaks where students could meet, find out who was in their classes, and learn about courses. Since then they have planned bigger events, including two research expos where faculty showcased their work to help students find research opportunities.

Aggarwal and Voltage have also been working to inspire more students to study electrical engineering. In the fall of 2015 they hosted the Electrical Engineering Expo with EECS, which connected students with electrical engineering internships and research opportunities.

Practical knowledge

The summer before her senior year, Aggarwal worked at FormLabs, an MIT spinout in Somerville specializing in 3-D printing. “The definition of my job was ‘fix things that are broken and make things work better,’” she explains.

In September 2015, FormLabs launched Form 2, the printer that Aggarwal worked on. Much of her internship focused on troubleshooting. “My biggest contribution was actually that I used what I learned in a lot of my signals and systems courses at MIT to program the heater for the printer,” she says.

During her junior year, Aggarwal worked on a research project through EECS’s SuperUROP program with Rajeev Ram, professor of electrical engineering, in his Physical Optics and Electronics Group. The project she worked on was aimed at building a wearable optical health monitor.

Aggarwal says that that her work at FormLabs and her research with Ram’s group helped her grow into a more confident engineer. She remembers she went into her SuperUROP without knowing anything about how to build a high-power wearable laser, the focus of her research project. However, with Ram’s encouragement, she quickly realized that learning how to solve new problems was the point of SuperUROP and research itself.

Both of these experiences showed her the importance of being ready to learn and figure out new ways to think. “Throughout my SuperUROP experience and during my time at FormLabs, I had to learn everything on the job. And that’s what I realized engineering is. It’s being able to learn what you need to, to get the job done.”

Rediscovering theater

Another thing that Aggarwal learned from her SuperUROP is the importance of diverse interests. “I do theater, I do electrical engineering, I do design, I do sports. I really appreciated that Professor Ram always encouraged me to keep pursuing all of my interests, and never told me to limit myself to one thing.”

Aggarwal grew up acting in school plays, but had stopped during high school to focus on science. At MIT, she discovered the student theater community and immediately decided to get involved.

She directed Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest" with the Dramashop during her junior fall. A year later Aggarwal directed "Now Then Again," her first full-length production, with The Experimental Theater Company, MIT’s newest student-run theater group.

She describes this experience as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done at MIT.” She still loves acting, but she loves directing even more. “I have a passion for it, just like I have a passion for science,” she says — a fact that speaks to her decision to add a second major, in MIT’s Music and Theater Arts Section.

Aggarwal enjoyed her SuperUROP research so much that she has decided to stay at MIT next year to pursue her MEng with Ram’s group. She will simultaneously be working on a theater arts thesis.

Aggarwal says, with no hesitation, that her favorite part of MIT is the people. “You don’t get to find such a group of people anywhere else in the world. Everybody here is so passionate about something, and it’s very obvious on their faces, and in how they talk about things. That really is the best part.” 

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